Why wind turbine production should be publicly owned

Submitted by Newcastle on 20 August, 2009 - 9:19 Author: By Joan Trevor

Joan Ruddock MP, Climate Change minister, agreed to meet supporters of the Save Vestas campaign during her constituency surgery in Deptford, south London, on 7 August, the same day that the last Vestas occupiers left the plant on the Isle of Wight.

She was standing in for Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who was away in Brazil lecturing them on their responsibilities as a developing nation to mitigate climate change — but that’s an aside.

The previous day Ruddock had met two Vestas workers together with union officials from the RMT, Unite, and the TUC.

Q: What has the government done to save the jobs at Vestas?

R: I’ll tell you what I told a delegation of Vestas workers, the RMT, Unite, the TUC yesterday. We’ve done a lot. Months ago we had notice of the potential closure. We asked Vestas, what help can we give you as a government?

There was no help that we could give them. They did not want money. They wanted to move the factory for their own commercial reasons. Let me tell you about their product. The blades they make are 40 metres long, they are not suitable for use in the UK...

Q: But they can convert the factory to make blades that are suitable...

R: They can convert the factory. There was discussion about that. The workers told us that until recently the conversion was going to go ahead. I don’t know the details of why that did not go ahead.

It is not just here, they have made a large number of people unemployed in Denmark as well, where they are based.

Q: Why not nationalise the plant? You have stepped in to nationalise the banks because there was a need to shore up the financial system. The government has set very high targets for expanding renewable energy, and very high targets for cutting carbon emissions. Is that not a similar emergency that would justify the government stepping in?

R: It’s not up for sale! We can’t just nationalise a whole company.

Q: Not the company, the plant. We cannot let meeting the targets depend on the business decisions of private companies. We will not meet the targets if we do that...

R: We will meet these targets!... We are not going to nationalise. You have a different model.

We have offered Vestas £6 million to develop the R&D facility on the Isle of Wight. That will be 150 jobs – it’s not 600, but it is something. Vestas will accept £6 million for that.

We will meet the targets on the present model of letting the market do it. We do agree on the general point of keeping manufacturing jobs in the UK. We are having ongoing discussion about how we keep and develop the skilled manufacturing jobs here.

Q: Closure of the plant is devastating for the Isle of Wight employment situation which is already bad, with 100 applicants for each job. What will you do to save this community?

R: We have set up a taskforce, with the South East England Development Agency, we are putting in place the support structures, and continuing to work to maximise business start-ups. Vestas might keep the plant and reopen again when conditions are right.

Q: Why should progress rely on business decisions of private firms?

R: You all have a different philosophy from me about what is the best way to produce jobs.

Q: Can we subsidise travel between the Island and the mainland, so that young people can have more mobility? Travel is very expensive at the moment.

R: I don’t know, that is not my department.

Q: You have a belief in the market — that’s your philosophy. But what about being practical? Have you done a feasibility study into whether it would be better economically overall to nationalise the plant?

R: There has not been a feasibility study because we are not going to nationalise, because we are sticking to our principles.

Q. Your belief in markets is like a religious belief.

R: We live in a market economy, all the advanced economies think the same.

Q: We live in a mixed economy, there is a lot of state intervention in the economy and the balance shifts back and forth depending on politics. These companies do not do what they do out of a love for the people who make the profits for them. They go where profits are highest. What do you think should happen to the workers who occupied, who drew our attention to this issue?

R: We will look at all the issues raised by workers about their jobs. I’ve asked my opposite numbers in the Department of Work and Pensions to look at what can be done for the workers.

Q: Will you undertake a feasibility study?

A: It’s not appropriate! The government does not want to be producers of wind turbines, and we did not want to be bankers.

Q: Not even to save the environment?

Q: The Tories nationalised Rolls Royce...

R: That’s another story...

Q: Nationalisation is what happened with East Coast Mainline. You nationalised it while you look for another buyer. Can’t you do that with this plant? Nationalisation doesn’t have to be like the nationalisations of the 1970s.

A: We are pulling out all the stops – short of nationalisation!

Ruddock’s basic argument is that the capitalist market can provide the solution to climate change. She says that not nationalising Vestas is a matter of “sticking to our principles”!

The government claims that the shift that we need to make to using renewable energy, including wind energy, is best achieved by helping the market in renewable energy to grow, and private companies involved in this sector to make profits.

“The market” is really only the right of capitalist companies to seek maximum profits where they can. Companies like BP can shift into “renewables” if that looks more profitable, or out if it doesn’t.

The government is prepared to juggle with taxes and to offer incentives, such as the £6 million it gave to Vestas to invest in research and development on the Isle of Wight. But if the market does not allow companies like Vestas to make as much profit in the UK as they can make elsewhere — eg, Colorado, USA, where most of the “Isle of Wight” work is going, and the government’s attempts to bend the market fail, then that’s it. The government will not nationalise the industry or take on the development of renewable energy in the public sector. That, for Ruddock, is “principle”!

The contrast with the government’s attitude to the banking sector is stark. The financial system must be shored up, even if that means nationalisation. But the climate? Leave that to the market.

Ruddock insists that the UK will meet its targets for CO2 reduction by continuing on the tracks that it is going down now. But the figures so far do not bear that out.

Ruddock’s statement that the government does not want to make wind turbines or run banks begs the question, what does the government want to do? On this trend, it is only a matter of time before Ruddock states that the government doesn’t want to run hospitals or schools either. The government will regulate private trade, and commission public services, and that is all.

In other words, vital services will only be provided as, when, and how they make a profit for private companies.

Companies relying on public contracts will obviously try to get away with providing as little as they can for the money they are paid. Meanwhile, when the government accepts private companies as partners it implicitly takes the side of those companies in any disputes it has with its employees.

That is very clear in the Vestas dispute. Of all the questions that we asked Ruddock, the one she seemed most hostile to answering was whether the government should press for reinstatement of the Vestas workers who were sacked for occupying their plant.

All she would say was that she would talk to her opposite numbers in the Department for Work and Pensions. About what? The workers getting the dole they are entitled to anyway, without her talking?

Vestas workers are adamant on that: they want to continue making wind turbine blades, but do not want to continue working for Vestas. They want to work for the good of the whole community instead, in a nationalised plant, with a management accountable to them.

They can see that “the market” will provide neither decent jobs nor the necessary transition to a sustainable economy. Joan Ruddock cannot because she has blinded herself with New Labour “principle”.